Desertification by Donalyn Miller

Our oldest granddaughter, Emma, is eight. She looks just like her mother did at the same age. Long limbs accessorized with a rotation of Band-Aids that move from one knee to the next. Wind-blown dark blonde hair that needs brushing. Piercing blue eyes that have already mastered the skeptical shade throw passed down through generations of women in my family.




Emma and I have lots in common. We would rather be outside collecting pinecones and interesting rocks than sitting indoors. We can watch woodpeckers drill holes in a tree for an hour, but struggle with ten minutes of polite chitchat. We prefer activities that have something to show for our work when we’re done—baking cookies, planting flower beds, making microscope slides from the dogs’ water bowl contents, writing stories. We have played a thousand games of Uno. The scratch paper in my purse is covered with Hangman games between us. Emma will whisper ask Aunt Sarah to spell difficult words like “veterinarian,” because she wants to trick me with a hard one. I notice she relies on spelling assists less and less these days.


Emma loves to read in the easy way kids who grow up around books do. She always has a book going. She reads with her baby brother and little sister. She digs through our books when she visits—picking some for us to read now and setting aside hold stacks I find around the house after she goes home. She collects Franny K. Stein and Who Was? biographies. She writes Bad Kitty fan fiction. Books fit into her life like bread and popsicles—everyday magic—special, but not miraculous or rare. Reader and writer are just two parts of her evolving identity.


franny k stein


While Emma likes exploring and making and reading, she doesn’t enjoy school. Too much sitting. Too many worksheets. Too much yelling. She would rather conduct science experiments in our kitchen than complete another water cycle graphic organizer. I have stopped asking her much about school because it upsets us both. Curious about what books her third grade teacher is reading aloud to her class, Emma told me, “She never reads to us, Mimi. She doesn’t have time.” Kids sit on the curb at recess if they forget their signed reading logs. Emma gets some free time to read her library book every day, but no one talks to her about what she’s reading or ensures she’s growing as a reader. Most of what Emma reads at school or completes for reading homework is test prep—an avalanche of test passages and comprehension questions meant to identify her reading skill deficits while ignoring her reading life completely.


Recently, Emma told us she was scared about upcoming state tests because “if she doesn’t pass them, she will be held back in third grade” and have to go to summer school. I asked her why she thought this, and she said her teacher tells the kids all of the time. Emma’s mom and dad go to parent nights and teacher conferences. They have talked to the school principal and Emma’s teachers until they are weary, but it doesn’t make any difference. Last week, on another day of benchmark testing (their seventh this year), Emma cried and shook all the way to school.


Emma’s experience isn’t unique. It saddens and angers me that too many schools value reading only as much as it raises children’s reading test scores. Our tax dollars purchase computer-based reading programs and mountains of test prep workbooks, but there’s little research evidence these materials improve children’s reading abilities. We cut librarians and book budgets because there’s not enough money, while spending a fortune on summer school programs that don’t remediate children’s reading difficulties long term. We have decades of research proving that access to books, student choice, and degreed school librarians all positively influence children’s reading motivation, engagement, AND test scores, but we ignore this research in favor of whatever program we can buy that has the best test prep assessments and fanciest data-reporting spreadsheets.


While education reformers blame teachers and administrators for the middle-of-the pack rankings of American schoolchildren on international comparisons, they fail to address the root cause—too many American children live in poverty without consistent access to health care, nutritious food, and books. Looking at testing data, the Economic Policy Institute emphasized, “Because social class inequality is greater in the United States than in any of the countries with which we can reasonably be compared, the relative performance of U.S. adolescents is better than it appears when countries’ national average performance is conventionally compared.” Factoring for poverty, American school children perform as well on standardized tests as anyone else.


Many children—disproportionally children of color—live in book deserts without meaningful access to books in their schools or communities. Differential book access affects the level of education children attain, which has long-term consequences for their health, productivity, and quality of life. The plight of rural and urban book deserts must be addressed before we see significant growth in American school children’s performance on standardized tests. Instead of spending money on things that don’t work, why don’t we spend it on books and do everything we can to get these books into kids’ hands?


Even in middle-income communities, we create book deserts for too many children through misguided efforts that level, limit, control, and define when and where and what children will read. We test and test kids while providing few opportunities to improve their reading skills in the only way that works—lots of successful, engaging reading experiences. This man-made desertification ensures that fewer children will read well or become engaged readers each year.


Instead of fostering the reading lives of children, we hold test prep rallies and advertise test score rankings on realtors’ websites. We create educational systems that value the worst teaching methods and complain that kids lack grit and stamina. They wouldn’t need so much grit and stamina if kids ate breakfast, if kids had healthcare, if schools weren’t so mindlessly boring and insensitive to children’s emotional, physical and intellectual well being. Last year at a workshop I attended, teacher and author Kristine Mraz remarked, “Schools need to stop being places designed for the sanity of adults and become places designed for the care and well-being of children.” Places where our children’s voices and interests matter. Places that provide enriching and humane educational experiences. Places where kids’ reading lives are more important than their reading scores.


Enough is enough. Blame politicians and education reformers if you must for the role they have played in perpetuating the high-stakes testing juggernaut, but politicians aren’t passing out test prep work packets in our classrooms every day. They aren’t celebrating their children’s test scores on Facebook. They aren’t preventing children from reading certain books or forcing children to take tests after every book they read. Fearful of how children’s poor test performances might make us look as educators or parents, we have become participants in a system that harms children every day.


The best way to improve children’s reading test scores? Provide access to books, encourage free choice,  give children time to read, and actively support their reading development at school and home. No test prep packet or computer program can ever replace what high-volume, high-interest reading, and strong reading communities already do.


gone camping


Emma is currently reading Gone Camping: A Novel in Verse by Tamara Will Wissinger, illustrated by Matthew Cordell. There’s no way to measure how much she has laughed, how much she has connected to the characters, how much it has expanded her love for reading and her appreciation for poetry. While her school cares about her test scores, we will take care of her reading life, which we hope lasts her long after formal schooling ends.


**I know there are great schools with literacy-minded principals, full-time degreed librarians, vibrant reading cultures, and lots of teacher and student empowerment. I see them often in my travels, but not enough. I wish every child attended schools like these. We will never have educational equity until they do.


Donalyn Miller has taught fourth, fifth, and sixth grade English and Social Studies in Northeast Texas. She is the author of two books about encouraging students to read, The Book Whisperer (Jossey-Bass, 2009) and Reading in the Wild (Jossey-Bass, 2013). Donalyn co-hosts the monthly Twitter chat, #titletalk (with Nerdy Book Club co-founder, Colby Sharp). Donalyn launched the annual Twitter summer and holiday reading initiative, #bookaday. You can find her on Twitter at @donalynbooks or under a pile of books somewhere, happily reading.